Sassy Gay Friend, a character created by Second City comic Brian Gallivan in 2004 and used to launch the Second City online comedy channel in 2010, demonstrates Linda Hutcheon’s assertion that our delight in adaptations comes “from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise.” The recurring joke of the series involves the insertion of a Sassy Gay Friend into tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth immediately before their female characters are scripted to harm themselves, thereby interrupting the plot of the play to prevent such tragedies from occurring. Online discussions of SGF have largely centered around whether the figure, with his jaunty puns and “stupid bitch” catchphrase is a postmodern reinvention or merely reinforcing a tired stereotype, but charting the figure’s rise and fall in popularity can give us some insight into the way adaptation functions as “a work that is second.”
Such theories of adaptation help explain why Sassy Gay Friend quickly lost audience interest after moving away from adaptations of major Shakespeare plays towards less familiar literary works: in order to operate effectively, an adaptation (or “second”) needs to be sufficiently recognizable to an audience accustomed with the originary text (the “first”). As a result, only Shakespeare’s greatest hits can receive such treatment – a Sassy Gay Friend video interrupting Pericles would be an impossible sell. We can see this phenomenon at work by looking at the relative views of the various videos.
The SGF Hamlet video, uploaded to YouTube in February 2010, has over six million views; the next month’s Romeo and Juliet has only slightly fewer, and Othello comes in with just over 3 million. Viewership of the series drops precipitously, however, as soon as the SGF takes on less familiar canonical works: his Great Expectations video has less than 900,000 views, while Cyrano de Bergerac can barely gain a few hundred thousand. Such numbers suggest that there is a finite number of classical works of literature that are widely enough known by the general public that they may be successfully adapted and spoofed. As Sassy Gay Friend’s popularity increased, the font of recognizable Shakespeareana that Gallivan could draw from was rapidly depleted. The cultural touchstone of Shakespearean tragedy thus both enabled Sassy Gay Friend’s immediate popularity and ensured its downfall.